A KPMG survey has showed that nearly 5 million UK workers earn less than a living wage, and this is Living Wage Week [4-10 November]. Politicians of all stripes like the idea of private companies paying their lowest-paid workers a bit more, for moral reasons and also because it could save the government a shedload of cash.
In 2010 the Institute for Fiscal Studies calculated that bringing every private sector worker up to the living wage would raise total earnings (before tax) by around £12bn. Around half of that - £6bn - would go directly to the government, in higher tax revenues and lower benefit and tax credit payments. That's a nice bit of spare change for the chancellor, especially one whose government wants to "make work pay". But no-one wants to be seen to be pushing new costs onto businesses at a tough time for the economy - let alone costing jobs. And it is private employers who would pay that extra £12bn (plus another £1.5bn in employers' national insurance contributions, for good measure).
Does such a miraculous thing exist? Many will be understandably sceptical. But KPMG claims that you can pay higher wages without paying higher costs. "At KPMG, we have found that the improved motivation and performance, and the lower leaver and absentee rate amongst staff in receipt of a living wage means that the cost is offset and paying it is the right thing for our business."
The key point is that the firms reporting these positive consequences are the firms that have chosen to pay this wage. So, presumably, they had done their sums beforehand and decided the benefits outweighed the costs.
Economists used to say no: if employers have to pay more for labour, they use it less. Then, starting in the 1990s, academic evidence started to build up about the minimum wage, in the US and the UK, suggesting that, at the very bottom of the labour market, telling companies to pay people a little more did not actually cost jobs.